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Posted at 1:20 PM ET, 07/ 9/2010

Behind the Lines: 'DOONESBURY's' Trudeau illuminates today's 'Sgt. Bitch' strip [UPDATED]

By Michael Cavna

UPDATE: Newsday has pulled today's "Doonesbury" with a note that the strip "will return tomorrow," according to Gawker -- which concludes with the clucking "Oh silly, silly Newsday!"

Click to see enlarged comic

Is there a cartoonist working today who writes about the military more tellingly, more incisively -- somehow more rightly -- than Garry Trudeau?

When it comes to covering the armed forces, which the Pulitzer-winning "Doonesbury" has notably done for much of the Iraq war, Trudeau is not only a cartoonist. He is also a reporter serving them with distinction. He is Ernie Pyle with an artist's pen, taking up a tradition that could make the great Bill Mauldin proud.

Case in point: Today's strip, whose language alone may turn a few heads, if not raise some editor's eyebrow. Rather than ponder how it rings so right, today we let Trudeau himself take us behind the lines:

GARRY TRUDEAU (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

"It was inspired by an Air Force NCO I met a couple years ago," Trudeau tells Comic Riffs. "While serving in Afghanistan, she was promoted to sergeant in front of her peers, some of whom had trouble dealing with it. When a male teammate later called her a bitch, she replied, 'That's Sergeant Bitch to you!'

"The comeback seemed particularly appropriate for Melissa," the cartoonist continues, "whose problems stem from the crippling sense of powerlessness and betrayal she experienced as a victim of command rape during an earlier rotation. I'm not sure where I'm going with this, but it seems credible that Sergeant Wheeler would feel more validated and less vulnerable than Specialist Wheeler."

And what about adapting the authentic language to the comics? Did that cause any pause?

"The language is slightly rawer than normally appears in 'Doonesbury' or the comics generally, but I don't think I'm using the epithet gratuitously, Indeed I hope that its use in this context undercuts the toxicity with which it is uttered by far too many male soldiers."

Trudeau also cites his prior deployment of the term.

"Actually, I have used the word 'bitch' before. In 2004, when B.D. discovers he's lost his leg, he exclaims, 'Son of a bitch!' There was a minor dustup; the Boston Globe and a few other papers dropped it."

It bears noting that Trudeau has not only traveled to Iraq and elsewhere on USO tours with his cartooning colleagues. He is also backing a proposed program that would turn New York's Patriot Hills at Saranac Lake into a "respite and reintegration center for active-duty soldiers, veterans and their families." The Adirondack Daily Enterprise covered the recent forum, titled "Soldier Resiliency: A Fresh Approach," to support the program.

The program would be based at the Trudeau Institute, a Saranac Lake medical research lab "specializing in developing cures for tuberculosis, flu and other lung diseases." Peter Crowley, managing editor of the Daily Enterprise, tells us that "it was established by Garry Trudeau's dad, Dr. Frank Trudeau, out of the ashes of the TB sanitarium and research lab founded in the late 19th century by Garry's great-grandfather, Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau."

The Daily Enterprise quotes an executive director of Patriot Hills as saying:
"Garry Trudeau has brought so much insight and capacity to this idea because of his connection to the military folks that we don't have locally. He has really broadened the scope of this, and it's going to help us a great deal going forward." ,

An effort, in other words, that Sgt. Wheeler herself would surely salute.

By Michael Cavna  | July 9, 2010; 1:20 PM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, The Comic Strip  | Tags:  Doonesbury, Garry Trudeau  
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You should provide a link to the WashPost Magazine story on Trudeau's coverage of military issues. I thought it was an excellent story.

Posted by: soccermutha | July 9, 2010 8:48 AM | Report abuse

>> soccermutha:

Sure thing. Here's a link to Gene Weingarten's 2006 Magazine piece, "Doonesbury's War":


Posted by: Michael Cavna | July 9, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

Nothing inappropriate in this strip. The usage and context are very accurate. Anyone with military background will find it both funny and true to life.

The only part I don't understand is why anyone above the age of five would find it offensive.

Posted by: AndrewfromNH | July 9, 2010 5:21 PM | Report abuse

I recall a few years ago that some Christian groups were upset with ABC for airing "Saving Private Ryan" unedited, despite the fact that the presentation was introduced by Senator McCain. It wasn't the violence that bothered them, but rather it was the language. I usually never hear any men in uniform complaining about the use of language in media representations of the military, though. That's who I would defer to for accuracy rather than some Christian group that appears to be ignorant about military affairs.

Posted by: The7Sticks | July 9, 2010 8:09 PM | Report abuse

I'm normally bothered by such language in print. After four years in the Air Force, though, I feel this usage is entirely appropriate.

Posted by: hsanders1 | July 10, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

As a civvie working for the Navy, I've been deeply touched by Mel's story. Not to mention those of BD and Toggle.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | July 10, 2010 10:43 PM | Report abuse

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